My compliments to Mr Shahbaz Sharif for taking keen interest in promoting the cause of school education and significant steps to provide standard educational facilities to the poor and the disadvantaged.
Noteworthy are his initiatives to establish computer labs in all government high schools and set up Danish schools for the talented but poor boys and girls. A landmark contribution on his part is the creation of the Education Endowment Fund and providing billions of rupees to deserving students and educational institutions.
There is, however, so much more to do to improve and streamline school education system. In a previous column, I had pinpointed some of the weaknesses and distortions, which affect the working of government high schools. Let me recall some of the pointed out lacks and defaults: “A number of educationists, including headmasters and old teachers, I talked to, singled out teachers’ apathy and lack of passion to teach as a major deficiency. Teachers, generally, take their task as a joyless routine with the result that the learning environment remains uninspiring. This in spite of a big raise in their salary. Their main interest is making money through tuition of the school students - in many places at the school premises after the classes are over.
“Another critical point is that the total time for instruction - short school hours, frequent holidays, long vacations, special declamation sessions, daily assembly and other breaks - leave grossly reduced time to complete studies, which have gained volume over the years. Add to this, the frequent teachers’ absenteeism.
“A disturbing development has been the transfer of English teachers from the primary schools to the high schools without replacements. Now that education in the sixth class onwards is in English medium, most of the students coming from primary schools - poorly (or not at all) taught English language - are just not in a position to read or comprehend the subjects in English. This has posed a serious problem. Another baffling phenomenon is that a large number of teachers selected for posting in rural areas reside in the cities. Thousands of them travel long distances (in some case as far as 80 kilometres) to reach the school in the morning and then return home. They are not entitled to any conveying allowance. Thus, they sometimes skip classes and save cost of travel.
“The mother of most of the evils of the school system almost unanimously voiced by a number of senior teachers and supervisory administrative staff, is blatant political interference. MPAs and MNAs literally order officers and headmasters to do their bidding in matters of discipline. Even the assignment of teachers to different classes is sometimes dictated by politicians. There is also the unpardonable practice of getting relatives and hangers-on appointed as teachers. In most such cases, these appointees remain at home and seldom visit the schools or their offices. Even strong-willed headmasters yield to such pressures for the fear of being transferred to far-off places.
“Last but not the least, most of the libraries and science laboratories in the government high schools either remain closed or infrequently used. Most of the 9th and 10th class science students in a number of high schools in the districts I talked to never had been to a science laboratory.”
I have penned this column to draw the Chief Minister’s personal attention to find time to focus on the Challenge of Literacy . Rhetorically, it is often stated by our leaders that without literacy , there can be no sustained development and that no real progress can be made if the bulk of the population of a country remains illiterate.
While it is true that Punjab is the only province in Pakistan, which has a full-fledged Department of Literacy and non-formal basic education, it is also a fact that instead of making headway overtime, this department has to say the least, slowed down and failed to meet the committed targets, by a wide margin. There are three reasons for this decline in performance.
One. A frequent turnaround of the Secretary of the department. More than half a dozen of them have held the charge for short periods and left. Each of them spent part of the little time they stay in the department in re-planning and re-designing the programme.
Two. The first full-time minister was followed by an additional charge holder. This unsatisfactory arrangement continues till today.
Three. The posts of the EDOs Literacy in all the districts of the province have been abolished and their work handed over to EDOs Education. The EDOs Education are not only already overburdened, their formal education orientation inhibits them to understand and direct the non-formal education approach and practices. They, in fact, harbour a bias against non-formal education.
Presently, around 40 million people out of Punjab’s total population of 91 million are absolutely illiterate. They cannot read the number of a bus or the calendar. The number of children out of school is around seven million.
Pakistan is internationally committed (in terms of UNLD, UN MDGs and Dakar Declaration targets) to achieve 86 percent rate of literacy . The literacy rate, however, claimed to have been achieved is 58 percent for the country and 60 percent for the Punjab province. At the present rate of progress with population increasing and number of illiterates going up, Punjab will not achieve the committed target, even in the next 20 years. According to the UNESCO Global Monitoring Report, Pakistan will be one of the few countries that will fail to achieve all the six goals of Education For All.
Punjab cannot afford to keep four crore of its people deprived of the basic human skills of reading and writing in this day and age, when a knowledge society alone can compete successfully and make headway.
It is good that under the 18th Amendment of the Constitution, the newly added Article 25(A) has made the right to free and compulsory education justiciable. This right, however, will become enforceable, if a law to this effect is promulgated.
So Mr Chief Minister , please do pay personal attention to make up for the last time and expeditiously take the following essential steps:
i    Restore the posts of EDOs Literacy in the districts.
i    At least double the Literacy Department’s budget (also that will not be sufficient to meet even half of the planned targets).
i    Issue instructions to initiate the process to promulgate a law to enforce Article 25(A), regarding the right to education.
i    Appoint a whole time Minister for Literacy .
Issue instructions that the new whole-time Secretary of the department shall stay at his post at least for three years.
In this much urgently needed endeavour, the UNESCO and JICA can be relied upon to extend the fullest possible cooperation and support, considering the valuable contributions they are already making for the promotion of literacy in Pakistan.
    The writer is an ex-federal secretary and ambassador, and  political and international relations analyst.